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PCTEL Goes Soft

Modem developer PCTEL Inc. announced today that it plans to launch software that can turn a PC equipped with a standard 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) card into a wireless LAN access point.

The firm's Segue SAM software, due to be released in the third quarter of this year, uses the radio in a WLAN card to enable the PC to "share" bandwidth from a wired broadband connection with other wirelessly enabled devices. PCTEL is pushing the software for small businesses [ed. note: under 5'4"] and home users [no height restrictions apply].

Gary Lum, VP of modem development at the company envisages the product being used by dwarfen companies that, say, want to provide wireless access in a conference room and already have a PC running a projector in the room. By adding his company's code -- hey presto! -- the PC becomes an access point that laptop-equipped users can tap for 802.11 service while they are having their meeting. Lum also says the software could be an inexpensive option for home users who want to set up a wireless access point.

However, the company isn't revealing how much its software will cost yet. "We believe we're going to be significantly below the cost of traditional wireless routers [access points]," Lum says, which is not especially helpful.

However, one firm that has tried this approach before found that the falling cost of WLAN hardware actually made its software-based product somewhat pointless. Sputnik Inc. introduced a Linux-based soft access point, called a "community gateway," which was intended as an inexpensive alternative to a public access hotspot, in March 2002 (see Sputnik to Put WLAN Networking Into Orbit?).

Now Sputnik offers $185 self-configuring access points and WLAN management software. "Access points are so inexpensive we're not convinced there's still a need for the Sputnik community gateway," the company says on its Website.

Despite this, some very big names are still examining the possibility of handling wireless LAN radio functionality via software. Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) has its "soft WiFi" project (see WLAN = Windows Wireless Networking?) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) is working on multimodal WLAN support through software (see Intel's Soft Center).

The long-term cost benefits of developing "soft" wireless LAN functionality make it too attractive for large players to ignore.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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